In May of 1969, as the women’s movement was gaining momentum and influence in the Boston area and elsewhere around the country, 12 women ranging in age from 23 to 39 met during a women’s liberation conference at Emmanuel College. In a workshop on “Women and Their Bodies,” they shared information and personal stories and discussed their experiences with doctors.
The discussions were so provocative and fulfilling that they formed the Doctor’s Group, the forerunner to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (which later changed to Our Bodies Ourselves), to research and discuss what they were learning about themselves, their bodies, and their health.
They decided to put their knowledge into an accessible format that could be shared and would serve as a model for women who want to learn about themselves, communicate their findings with doctors, and challenge the medical establishment to change and improve the care that women receive.
In 1970, they published a 193-page course booklet on stapled newsprint entitled “Women and Their Bodies.” You can read the full text, which is available as a PDF file.
It was revolutionary for its frank talk about sexuality and abortion, which was then illegal. The cost: 75 cents.
In 1971, they changed the title to “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to emphasize women taking full ownership of their bodies.
Published by New England Free Press, the book put women’s health in a radically new political and social context and quickly became an underground success, selling 250,000 copies, mainly by word-of-mouth. The cost this time around: 40 cents.
In 1972, the group of original women formally incorporated as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Over the years, several long-term staff members who developed and ran the program work of the organization were also recognized as founders.
In 1973, Simon & Schuster published the first commercial, expanded edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The preface is available online.
The book has sold millions of copies and received numerous honors. Library Journal named the 2011 edition one of the best consumer health books of the year. Also in 2011, Time magazine recognized “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as one of the best 100 nonfiction books (in English) since the founding of Time in 1923. In 2012, the Library of Congress included the original “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in the exhibit Books That Shaped America, a collection of 88 nonfiction and fiction titles “intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives.”
As far back as 1974, publishers and women’s groups in other countries started translating and adapting “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and developing books inspired by it. In 2001, OBOS formalized the Our Bodies Ourselves Global Initiative, which provided support to and worked closely with women’s groups adapting the book for their own cultures and communities. In 2011, Our Bodies Ourselves celebrated its 40th anniversary with an international symposium that included a dozen of OBOS’s global partners. As of spring 2018, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has been reproduced in 31 languages, reaching millions of women around the world.
For many years, book and web content contributors, along with advisory board members, board members, consultants, founders, and staff, collaborated to produce and promote evidence-based information on girls’ and women’s health and sexuality. This information, distributed through OBOS’s publications, website, and blog, also addressed the social, economic and political conditions that affect health care access and quality of care. This contextual information has inspired readers to learn more about — and to change — laws and policies that affect their own and their family’s well-being.
In April 2018, the board, founders and staff of Our Bodies Ourselves came to the difficult conclusion that OBOS no longer had the resources to continue paying staff to develop health information and collaborate on translations and adaptations with our global partners. Over the spring and summer of 2018, OBOS transitioned to a volunteer-led 501(c)3 and scaled back OBOS’s core work to two primary activities: advocating for women’s health and social justice and providing limited technical support to OBOS’s global partners. Read more about the transition.
Since its inception, OBOS has had a tremendous impact on the lives, health, and human rights of women across the world. Learn more.